The extraordinarily young chief of staff Jack Pratt '98 is living proof that a smart, ambitious, hard-working liberal arts graduate can rise quickly in the often invisible but crucially important world of Congressional staffdom. He worked briefly for Representative Ken Lucas (D-Kentucky), then joined Representative Steve Israel's staff when Israel took office in 2001. Pratt started in an entry-level job ("to some degree, once you get your foot in the door, we're all sort of interchangeable") and worked his way up to the top spot in the office. He was twenty-eight when he took over as chief of staff, a post he's held since 2004. Here are his tips for making it in Washington.
Use your Kenyon education. It is surprising how few applicants write well. Happily, whether you were a biology or an English major at Kenyon, you should be a step ahead of the crowd. Show off your skills with a strong writing sample (preferably a published one), or at least a well-written résumé and cover letter.
Read your Alumni Bulletin. Jobs move so quickly, they are often advertised only by word of mouth. So improve your odds by extending your network. We have a plethora of impressive alumni throughout Washington, from a press person at the White House to the top staffer at AIPAC, and even a congressman. Check out which alum is in your dream job and ask how she or he got there.
Know your subject. Even if you missed John Elliott's classes, there is still time to cram before getting started in D.C. If you want to really understand your congressman or senator, find a copy of CQ's Politics in America or National Journal's Almanac of American Politics. New editions of these indispensable guides to Congress are released after every election year.
Don't try to skip the first rung on the ladder. As in many other industries, political staffers start at the bottom and work their way up. This often means answering the phone for a salary that barely covers the rent. It might even mean tending bar or temping while looking for an entry-level job on the Hill. The competition is stiff: we receive about four hundred résumés for entry-level job openings in our office. It takes a bit of luck to find the right job, so just concentrate on getting your foot in the door and then you can worry about advancing.
Start early. There is no substitute for on-the-job learning. We've had some great Kenyon interns in our office. If you can't swing working for free in Washington for a summer, try volunteering
on a local campaign or getting an internship in your congressman's local office.
Develop your wonk or your hack. While most of the world can be divided into left-brained and right-brained people, a classic essay divided Washington into "wonks" and "hacks." If you find yourself reading the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site for fun, you're probably a wonk. If you have a Google e-mail alert set up for "Larry Sabato," you're probably a hack. The best staffers are the ones who can bridge the divide, even if it requires deliberate training. Figure out where you land and learn to develop your weak side. You can volunteer on a campaign or get a subscription to Congressional Quarterly. Like teaching yourself to switch-hit, it may seem tedious, but it will be better for you in the long run. Just ask Mickey Mantle or Rahm Emanuel.
Buy three blue suits and five shiny red ties. Only kidding! Capitol Hill is like a mini-United Nations, so whether you're more comfortable in a banker's collar or a bolo tie, the key is to figure out where you fit. That's more of a philosophical guideline than a stylistic one. I'm a moderate Democrat and have worked for like-minded people. You'll do better—and be happier—working for something (or someone) you believe in. Still, don't underdress for your interview.